By now, I’ve most assuredly lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Mandy Rowden perform — whether it be collections of her originals, cover sets in the chillest New Year’s Eve bar setting imaginable, or showcases for the students of Girl Guitar, her guitar school in which my wife is actively involved as a student and showcase photographer. Even if she’s not one of Austin’s most ubiquitous music presences via articles or other media mentions, the acclaimed singer-songwriter stealthily has a Roy Kent thing going on: Rowden’s everyfuckingwhere.
In any setting, with any set list, the East Texas-raised Rowden is an engaging, witty performer. But her show at Saxon Pub on July 15, showcasing her deep catalogue of well-wrought, Americana-leading originals, was one of her finest to date. In front of a packed early-evening crowd — Rowden’s Girl Guitar army, their friends and their significant others can usually be counted on to show out — she was in fine voice as usual, her pipes alternately bright, haunting and disarming. But her righthand man for this outing helped elevate her 90-minute set as well: Chip Dolan, whose peppy work on keys and accordion added homey flavor throughout.
As a performer and songwriter, Rowden has several prominent strengths. One of them, which even rises to the level of a gift, is her ability to write and utter lines like “100 days with you don’t count for one day apart” without seeming the slightest bit cloying or saccharine. She displayed that repeatedly on the likes of “Breaks,” the 2015 song with the aforementioned line, and the powerful career highlight “San Antonio,” where she memorably vows to “love you till the day that I drop dead” and the soaring chorus conjures an image of a gig aside a roaring campfire.
On the more recent “Get Out of the City,” off last full-length Parachutes, Rowden and Dolan were more than enough personnel to kick up a gently honky-tonkin’, country-rock racket. Her prelude to “Get Out of the City” showcased how easily and comfortably she connects with an audience and lets them into her world– the song’s tribute to remote country living was an appropriate followup to Rowden’s revelation that she recently bought a house in Lockhart. “I thought I would die in the 04,” she told the Saxon crowd. “I still might, but I won’t be living here, at least.” Witticisms are always part of the Mandy experience, as when she encouraged exploration of her catalogue on streaming: “If every single person in this room listens on Spotify for free, when we come back here in about a year, Chip and I will be able to buy a beer.” Also, for the uninitiated, eternal Mandy favorite Neil Young always comes up onstage. Without fail.
All this makes a Mandy Rowden show a reliably engaging night out. But in a dark, wood-walled setting like the Saxon, with a fine player like Dolan at her side, she rose above her own considerable standard.